NCSU’s Long, Impressive Road to “Most Improved”

Looking back at EcoCAR Finals 2010, it’s easy to see a school that placed very well, won lots of events, took home awards and overall, excelled at competition. But often, the number and rank of awards doesn’t tell the whole story. One team who is an example of that is North Carolina State University (NCSU).  Before going on, I’ll provide some background.

NCSU is new to the Advanced Vehicle Technology competitions and until EcoCAR, they hadn’t taken on anything with this scope and complexity. It is very easy to fall behind and initially NCSU did just that. Some of the pitfalls happened to more experienced teams, but to a lesser degree. For example, students might spend an exorbitant amount of time on one section of a report only to fall short in another section. Prioritizing workloads has proven very difficult and is unquestionably part of the EcoCAR learning experience. It helps young engineers get a sense of how much work it takes to accomplish a given task and where tradeoffs between time and resources should be made. We could see NCSU’s growing experience levels reflected in their reports but there isn’t any downtime in EcoCAR, so if a team falls behind it’s tough to catch up.  Nevertheless, NCSU forged on.  At the Year 1 competition finals in Toronto, they were short on staff with two students giving every engineering and outreach presentation. They finished 16th.  However, don’t let that figure fool you. Those two students were key to the team’s turn around in Year 2.

So how did NCSU do it? I’m sure there were many factors, but NCSU has some key strengths.  I’ll qualify these observations by stating that as an organizer we only see the teams a few times a year so I’m sure NCSU has many more strengths than I am about to mention. On our first visit to NCSU, we were tasked to inspect facilities which went smoothly. After, we were taken on a university tour and what we saw at the university was very encouraging. It was clear NCSU knew how to build stuff.  Labs and fabrication shops were buzzing with activity. Students were working on Formula SAE as well as other projects.  There were several completed vehicles from past years displaying high levels of workmanship. We left with a good feeling about them. Sure, they may have been overwhelmed by the initial pace of EcoCAR but we guessed when it came time to build their car, they would know how to get it done.

The next strength and probably the most critical were the people and culture that NCSU brought to competition. In Year 1, Ali Seyam and Abram Harder were co-team leaders and showed great strength by tackling so many presentations and work themselves. Most teams have students specialized in respective areas who then, give presentations on those topics. NCSU did not and today, Ali and Abram are probably some of the most knowledgeable and experience students in the EcoCAR program.

Ali and Abram both started graduate school and continued to lead their team into the competition’s second year.  This brought critical continuity and experience to the NCSU team.  I’m not exactly sure what those two did differently in the second year but it worked. They put together a well-rounded team representing multiple engineering disciplines. The team finished the control system and design development that they did not complete in Year 1 in addition to all of the Year 2 work.  Instead of bringing the smallest team, they brought one of the largest teams to competition and worked very hard to get their vehicle through the safety tech inspection and then into events.  Things didn’t all go their way. Their car was too heavy requiring them to remove some non-essential parts and they couldn’t get their engine/generator to work properly.  They had to make some hard decisions. Work on their engine longer and risk running out of time to drive (their vehicle propels itself electrically and can run on battery power for a considerable distance)? Or run without the engine/generator which would limit them in some events but let them earn points in dynamic events?

Their team leadership showed excellent focus and an understanding of the overall competition strategy that one would typically expect of a veteran team. They chose the second option which I think all parties involved agreed was a smart move.  Their decision meant a few things: they couldn’t finish the emissions and energy consumption event (the most points of all dynamic events) and they took a penalty for the vehicle not running as intended. They knew they were going to lose points, but not as many as if they did not get their car through safety tech inspections in time.  Still, the team was upbeat as ever. They didn’t let this get them down one bit. Organizer after organizer remarked how pleasant they were to work with and how they seemed to handle adversity with a fantastic attitude.

In Year 2 NCSU earned 7th place and the award for most improved team.  However, that honor can’t capture what it took to get where they are today.  My former team at San Diego State University had similar issues and also did poorly in the first year of EcoCAR’s predecessor, Challenge X. We also climbed to the same exact same places as NCSU in the first 2 years of EcoCAR.  I can personally relate to the challenges and hard work it takes to get from where they were to where they are now.  Back to my original point – at a glance 7th place and an award for improvement might not stand out. However, the true story is the one behind the scenes.  NCSU has shown an outstanding work ethic and attitude that not only makes them great to work with but should help the team achieve even more success in Year 3.  They have shown an outstanding ability to bounce back from hardship, learn from mistakes, and apply their experience in the real world for real improvement. That type of positive environment is ideal to inspire and cultivate the next generation of engineers to lead our nation and world towards a future of sustainable mobility. And in the end, that’s why we are all here.

-Contributed by Frank Falcone, a vehicle systems engineer for Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Vehicle Technology Competition program.